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Legal experts are regarding the Dutch lawsuit as a pivotal first—with precedent-setting potential—in which human rights are being used as a legal basis to protect citizens against future harms related to a hotter and less stable planet. (Photo: Shutterstock)

'Lawsuit Out of Love' as Unprecedented Legal Action Accuses Dutch Government of Failing on Climate

'We are standing for what is necessary to do. Ten years ago we would not have tried this but I think things are changing... it’s more clear to a broad group we are heading to a catastrophe.'

Jon Queally

The district court at The Hague in the Netherlands on Tuesday is hearing oral arguments in an unprecedented legal case brought against the Dutch government by nearly 900 of its citizens who say the failure of elected leaders when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a violation of existing human rights protections and other laws because they are knowingly putting current and future generations of people at risk from the well-established threat of global warming and climate change.

Spearheaded by the The Urgenda Foundation, whose stated mission is to foster a "fast transition towards a sustainable society with a circular economy," the lawsuit charges the Dutch government with not taking sufficient measures to lower the country's dependence and overall consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas. Legal experts are regarding the case as a pivotal first—with precedent-setting potential— in which human rights are being used as a legal basis to protect citizens against future harms related to a hotter and less stable planet.

"It's a lawsuit of out love," Marjan Minnesma, the executive director of Urgenda, has stated.

Speaking with RTCC last week, Minnesma said she thinks her group has a strong case. "The Dutch government is by far not doing enough, they have a goal for 2020 of 14% clean energy and in 2023 16% – it is not really going quickly enough if you want to avoid a catastrophe in this and the next generations," she said. "We are standing for what is necessary to do. Ten years ago we would not have tried this but I think things are changing... it’s more clear to a broad group we are heading to a catastrophe."

As Urgenda explains on its website, the lawsuit demands the following from the Dutch court:

1. To declare that global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide.

2. To declare that the Dutch State is acting unlawfully by not contributing its proportional share to preventing a global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

3. To order the Dutch State to drastically reduce Dutch CO2 emissions even before 2020 to the level that has been determined by scientists to be in line with less than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, that is, to reduce Dutch emissions by 40% by 2020 below 1990 levels.

Writing at the Huffington Post about the case last week, Kelly Rigg, an environmental campaigner based in the Netherlands, said the lawsuit "comes at a time when an increasing number of legal experts around the world have come to believe that the lack of action represents a gross violation of the rights of those who will suffer the consequences." The plaintiffs are arguing, she explained, "that the failure of governments to negotiate international agreements does not absolve them of their legal obligation to do their share in preventing dangerous climate change. These arguments are at the core of the Dutch lawsuit and will undoubtedly be put to the test in other countries before too long."

According to the Guardian, Joos Ockels—whose late husband, Wubbo Ockels, was the first Dutch citizen in space—is among the key individual plaintiffs in the case. Wubbo, the newspaper notes, had dedicated much of his later years to environmental work, founding the renewable energy foundation Happy Energy and declaring that citizens must care for the planet as "astronauts of spaceship Earth." The Guardian continues:

Urgenda and Ockels were inspired to take action by ideas set out in a book written by Roger Cox, the lawyer now leading the case. Five years in the making, Revolution Justified argues – alongside other legal experts – that the judiciary can play a fundamental role in tackling climate change.

Cox said: “We’re now 23 years down the road of the climate change treaty and it’s obvious that international politics has not brought much good to the world. The power of politics, fossil fuel companies and the banks are so large but there is one other powerful system with a lot of wisdom and that is the law.”

He continued: “There is a parallel here with the situation in the 1950s in the United States. It was the courts that decided that segregation in schools was not constitutional. It wasn’t a big issue in society and it wasn’t political but it was a few people fighting and the courts following up that created a huge change in American society.”

In a related development, a group of global jurists and legal experts on March 30 launched what they call the 'Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations' – which aims to provide a legal framework by which governments can be showed how their inaction on climate-related policies fits into established tort laws, international treaties, or other protocols.

"We simply cannot wait in the pious hope that short-term-minded governments and enterprises will save us; and that when we act it must be on the basis of equity and justice, according to law." — Julia Powles & Tessa Khan, legal scholars

Alongside the legal principles themselves (pdf), those behind the initiative also published supporting commentary (pdf), which reads in part:

World leaders, international institutions and increasingly also business leaders have, clearly and loudly, expressed serious concern [about climate change]. Several pledges have been made to the effect that steps must be taken to secure that the world’s mean temperature does not pass the two degrees threshold. This stance has continuously been taken, despite the reservations of the small number of dissenting climate scientist s and of sceptics. Despite the laudable pledges by leading politicians around the globe and a series of urgent calls made by prestigious international organisations, political actions do not keep pace with these promises and calls; they fall short of doing the minimum necessary to avoid that the two degrees threshold will be passed.

As things stand right now, there is not much reason to believe that politicians will be able to strike compromises to the extent needed in due time. This regrettable state of aff airs serves as an incentive, if not imperative, to explore potentially promising avenues to stem the tide.

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